Okay, so I disappeared for a couple weeks. I was on vacation. Did you think I wasn’t coming back? I really needed to get away. I wanted the sun, the sea, beautiful scenery, comfort, and great food. But maybe more important was what I didn’t want: To be found easily.
Sicily is a perfect place to disappear, as history shows regarding members of certain rumored organizations. You won’t find people minding your business. What you will find is a delightfully chaotic, fabulously anarchic though entirely civilized society that runs perfectly, as if through ancient unspoken agreements and inbred instincts.
You will also find arguably the best food in Italy, the country with the best food in Europe. You will find extraordinary natural beauty in an astonishingly diverse range of microclimates, and you will be amazed by the architectural of a culture that has been formed by the Greeks, the Romans, the Vandals, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Jews, the Normans, the Aragonese, the Savoyards, the Hapsburgs, the Bourbons, and Napoleon. In fact, the same thing that makes Sicilian architecture so delightful—the uniquely broad tapestry of influences—is exactly what makes its food and other cultural manifestations so appealing.
Above all you find in Sicily a feeling (well I do, anyway) that this is a place where people know how live. How to be. It might have started with a knowledge of survival, but over the centuries it’s evolved into a true art of living. To be or not to be is no longer the question. The question is, what’s for dinner. And that’s one of the most important questions one asks in Palermo—one of the most deliciously mixed-up and delightfully funky places on the planet. Ah…Palermo! To Tony Bennett San Francisco is the “city by the bay,” but for me it’s Naples and Palermo.
It took me fourteen hours to get to Palermo, Sicily. That’s because I wasn’t traveling from New York, but from another spot in the Mediterranean, Ibiza, where I was on a job. Ibiza looked great. I hadn’t ever been there. But I only had about a day. Every time I took a taxi the driver was playing rave music, and I looked at each closely for signs of ecstasy use. Ibiza to Barcelona. Barcelona to Roma. Roma to Palermo—Alitalia all the way.
Italy’s national airline is a bit in distress. It doesn’t make money. Air France/KLM tried to buy it, but the deal fell through when the unions wouldn’t agree to reducing the workforce. So here’s an airline that’s shabby around the edges and iffy on performance. I boarded my final leg an hour late in Rome, then sat on the plane for almost another hour until they finally announced that the plane was broken. After one more hour I managed to talk my way onto another flight, to Sicily’s capital. And I got there too late for dinner with my friends. But I did get there. And after a hairy landing, I was grateful for that. As I deplaned I congratulated the pilots on our survival and told them how interesting it was to experience an aircraft-carrier-type landing. I’ve never felt brakes applied so hard or come so close to the end of the runway. And of course there was that feeling that all my luggage wouldn’t be waiting for me. I’m not psychic, I’ve just flown Alitalia lots. And I was right. So I took the bag that did arrive, the one with my shirts in it and some Graham Greene and Leonardo Sciascia novels, picked up a Fiat from Autoeurop, and drove into the city of Palermo itself.
Palermo is a strange tapestry of old and new, mainly because it was heavily bombed by our dads in World War Two, I arrived five days after the 25th anniversary of the invasion of Sicily by the Allies. So one moves from blocks of extraordinary baroque edifices to blocks of rather anonymous modernist post-war buildings. It’s easy to get lost. And I did. Around midnight, trying to find my hotel, the Villa Igiea, from memory. And it’s not that I don’t know Palermo, but darkness is a little darker there and memory plays tricks. After several conversations with people on the street and about an hour of driving in circles I finally managed to find the waterfront and then the hotel. Once inside the gates I felt very relieved. Palermo is funky, but I’m not afraid there. I was just tired and starving and anxious to get my missing bag.
The Villa Igiea is a splendid grand hotel on the harbor. Its style is Art Nouveau in a slightly Moorish manner, and it retains much of its old charm. Photos in the bar and public spaces show the history of the hotel during the Belle Epoque. The staff hasn’t been there since that era, but they do display old-world manners, and although they were unable to find the reservation we made through the Hilton website—Hilton acquired the property since my last visit—they did their best to make it up to me. They offered to put me in the “Presidential Suite.” Hillary Clinton stayed there, the desk clerk assured me. And it was a beautiful suite. Being worn and annoyed after 14 hours in the grasp of Alitalia, I accepted—they said they would give me a very good rate, but for one night, anyway, I didn’t care. The bellman showed me the room and cranked up the AC and I was just about to pop a cork when I noticed a large pool of water on the marble bathroom. Off to another room, much smaller but with a working air-conditioner. Once I got to the terrace bar, got some wine, a sandwich, olives, and my favorite caperberries and looked out on the lights of Palermo’s harbor, I knew I was on vacation.
The family arrived the next day and we hung out by the hotel’s delightful pool. It adjoins the ruins of an old Greek temple and there’s certainly a magic feel to the spot. It’s on a cliff above a yacht harbor. A few years earlier I watched in my bathing suit as a million-dollar yacht burned. This year things were quieter, but the yachts were even bigger. Supposedly this wonderful building was once a “rest home.” But whether it was a temple to Venus or to Freud doesn’t matter. This is a fine place to chill out and foray out into the delightful city of Palermo.
My friends Wayne Maser and Sciascia Gambaccini live in Palermo part of the year. Wayne’s a great photographer and Sciascia, named by her family after the great writer, is the fashion editor of A magazine. Palermo is a good place to shoot, and from here they can manage their properties on the island of Pantelleria. They live in a fantastic neighborhood, La Kalso, in an ancient building on Piazza della Kalsa, which was the Arab quarter and today it’s still something like a casbah. Their building sits on a massive fortified wall. In fact, Wayne said, “You’ll know the building. It’s the one that has a street running through it.” And it’s true.
Their apartment truly deserves the appellation “fantastic,” with antique-marble-patterned floors and neo-Egyptian motif wall paintings that would seem to date to the fantasy of a noble inhabitant or a long-gone occult lodge of the sort Aleister Crowley might have patronized. They took us to a delightfully funky and delicious seafood restaurant just off the piazza that was so good I ate mussels for the first time in about ten years.
It was ridiculously cheap and the seafood was of the highest quality. For dessert we visited a corner watermelon stand on the waterfront and ate perfectly sweet, perfectly cold, and crisp fruit.
The next night we took the opposite approach and went for the tasting menu at the Osteria del Vespri, a place I’ve visited on every trip to Palermo. It’s in a charming spot, in front of a palazzo where Luchino Visconti shot The Leopard. Again seafood was the specialty, but this time it was total nouvelle haute cuisine. Having hypnotized myself that the euro was equal to the dollar I was able to enjoy the six or so exotic courses the chef put in front of us. But I think if I lived in Palermo I’d eat in LaKalsa a dozen times to once here. Palermo has everything, I used to love shopping there but with the dollar situation it wasn’t quite as much fun as in the past.
After a few days winding down in a laid back urban situation I was ready for deep vacationing, so we hopped in the car and took the Autostrada East to Milazzo where we caught a hydrofoil for Panarea, where my family had taken a house with my pal Eric Goode and his significant other Miye McCullough. Just before our boat left we checked out the local newsstand. I was thrilled to find a copy of my magazine, Interview, there. 10 euros!
The hydrofoils or “aliscafi” are fast but not as much fun as they look, unless you hang around on the open deck with the smokers.
Coming soon: Glenn lands at his next port of call.